On Reflection

The new semester’s classes start tomorrow. My first reading assignment has already landed metaphorically on my desk. The two articles to be read are on reflection, reflective writing, and what does this mean in practice. I was intimidated by them – did I know how to reflect in writing? would I be able to grasp these new concepts? So, I was moved to come here and ponder out loud whether this what I do is the same as what is expected?

I’d been meaning to write but I’ve been writing. And I began September with an intensive short course on 3D printing and the circular economy – it deserves its own post which it shall receive in due time. Coming to the blog felt like an indulgence, dissipating the energy of thinking and writing for pure pleasure rather than husbanding it for the conference paper I’m coauthoring.

I’ve taken on a full course load this semester to make up for the last year’s disruptions. I think I’ll come here more often, if only as a way to play and keep my sanity, rather than staying away. I will have to find a way to distribute my time spent on thinking and writing to allow for time to play as well as work. I can reflect on what I’m learning. There is a new category now, under Education, called Reflections.

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A change of perspective and a whole new set of metaphors (Czarniawska, 2008)

“…each excursion into another field of knowledge brings with it things that were embedded in a different type of soil, and it is inevitable that particles of that soil are still clinging to the roots, practically invisible to the new owner. Additionally, a re-embedding into the new soil could produce deviations and hybrids that are sometimes superior to the original, and sometimes not” ~ Barbara Czarniawska, 2008, Organizing: how to study it and how to write about it

Let me sing you a song of Kaleva’s magic. Czarniawska’s joy of discovering a way to ground her work with an approach and a methodology that fit her purpose and her needs, shines through clearly in her writing. In her introduction to the paper linked above, she says:

Let there be no doubt about one thing: to me, the emergence of a cultural paradigm in organization studies was the best thing that happened in my nearly 40-year research career. Anthropology brought with it a dramatic change of perspective and a whole new set of metaphors, as well as a legitimacy to field methods that had barely been acknowledged in organization studies. (Czarniawska, 2008)

This is exactly how I felt, not only in response to her words, written by her in her paper about her own experience, but the spark of reflection that these words evoked in me. I have already documented here the ‘dramatic change of perspective and a whole new set of metaphors’ that changing my own subdisciplinary methodology and approach from the expert-led mindset of a user centered designer and researcher to that of the Scandinavian tradition of participatory design approaches to cocreation had brought about. And, the wrenching change of perspective required of me to shift to the role of novice scholar after three decades of experienced professional practice.

Now, as I sit here and ponder the implications of these words, I’m moved to reflect on my own ‘discipline’ – something that had never mattered in practice, as I’ve simply called it a ‘holistic’ approach – but is an important matter of concern in academia, where one’s situatedness in the body of scholarship is de rigeur. This is not a case of what self composed job title I give myself as a business owner, but of the strands of knowledge which inform my thinking and my writing and thus my work.

It is the art of combining several sciences in one person. A transdisciplinary is a scientist trained in various academic disciplines. This person merged all his knowledge into one thick wire. That united knowledge wire is used to solve problems that include many problems. Pablo Tigani

If asked, I cannot disentangle the legacy of my first degree in Industrial & Production Engineering from Bangalore University from the impact of my intensive one year full credit MBA program completed a decade later at the University of Pittsburgh. Nor can I tease out the influence of Bauhaus inspired designerly skills introduced to me 32 years ago at the Eames conceptualized National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad or the eye-opening experience at the Institute of Design in Chicago (the old New Bauhaus) where business and design came together in a rigorous methodology based on contextual and user understanding as opposed to the classical design studio approach of NID.

Add to this the past decade of research using design ethnography methods to grasp the nature and functioning of the informal economy from the perspective of their financial management behaviour, often in the development context, and you’ll find I’m as unable to pick a discipline as a toddler asked to pick a flavour in Baskin-Robbins.

Approaching the challenge of situating my work from the lens of transdisciplinarity* offers me a way out of my quandary. As Czarniawska (2008) said, for me, this opens up a whole new perspective** and a dramatic change in metaphors.


* – there’s two common meanings, and I’ll leave my exploration of this for another post –

** I named my blog Perspective in 2005, I’m not going to open a new one

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Infrastructures of inclusion and informality: who drives the design of sociotechnical systems?

A recent Debate (Development and Change, Vol 52, No. 4) on the infrastructures of inclusion, informality and the social contract expands the notion of infrastructure beyond the tangible and the technological, to the systemic and economic, as well as societal structures and processes that are intended to facilitate inclusion. As Kate Meagher says in her introduction to the Debate (Meagher, 2021) the “will to include” has become paramount, and the recent global crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic has only made matters of economic inclusion more critical than ever.

The Debate situates the discourse within three overlapping spheres – Inclusion, Informality, and Infrastructure – and the articles “examine the specific processes through which these inclusive connections engage with informal actors, focusing on how they work and for whom” (Meagher, 2021). Reading them carefully has opened my eyes to the dark side of digitalization as the panacea for the developing world’s ills. It also raises the question of how these socio-technical systems (STS) were conceptualized and designed in the first place.

For example, Ruth Castel-Branco’s article explores:

“…the contentious politics at the interface of digital technologies and cash transfer administration in Mozambique. It combines ethnographic research conducted between 2016 and 2018 with semi-structured interviews in 2020 to trace how state technocrats, local leaders, community volunteers and cash transfer recipients have sought to claw back power from digital control.” (Castel-Branco, 2021)

While Laura Mann and Gianluca Iazzolino observe:

“…within a development context, [digital] platforms do not operate in a political or historical void. They depend on other actors to fund, facilitate and frame their activities. Thus, our article situates platforms within a wider discussion of policy paradigms. Other powerful actors, such as large donors, government bodies, or large corporate partners in the case of agriculture, can pressure the platform operator to curate the market in ways that accommodate and reflect their own requirements, interests and theories of development.” (Mann and Iazzolino, 2021)

How well these markets are curated to benefit the poor, is a human centered design question that may never have been raised throughout the product development process. These authors have taken an infrastructural lens to “decipher the distributive and governance implications of the complex institutional, financial and digital linkages” of inclusion “in the circuits of contemporary market economies (Meagher, 2021). That is, they are analysing aspects of the impact of a designed STS from a variety of socio-political and economic development angles that designers and developers are rarely asked to consider in the course of their work.

Scandinavian design approaches that seek to emphasize the empowerment of the end-users of digital technology trace their legacy of political activism to their roots in the worker empowerment efforts in the 1970s. Taking sides on the behalf of the more vulnerable group of stakeholders, giving them a voice in the design process, incorporating their needs for improving their working conditions and building tools to enhance their skills and capacities are all facets of this design tradition’s long legacy of democratizing innovation.

Yet, as these articles collected together in this Debate show, design and designers have little role to play in the actual outcomes and implementation of their work which seeks to include the economically excluded. Karasti (2014) brings up aspects of this issue in her comprehensive review on infrastructing, where she notes that sometimes the emphasis is far too much on the technological side and not enough on the social side. I share an extensive quote here:

This shift, in broadening the focus from mere technology to its embedding context of practice, inevitably (re)calls for paying attention to the deeply socio-technical nature of infrastructuring. In STS tradition, this is premised in the idea of the mutual constitution/shaping (“imbrication,” Star, 2002) of the social and the technological.

This mutuality is contextually embedded, (i.e., technologies are seen as socially situated). It directs researchers to pay attention to the interdependent and inextricably linked relationships between the social and the technical without making a priori judgments about the relative importance of either or forcing separation between them.

In current PD literature, however, the social seems occasionally stripped away from the notion of infrastructuring. We see this both in approaches that aim to develop method support for infrastructuring but confine themselves to technology design, and in the work that employs additional user concepts that—while allowing for more nuanced analyses of the user population—run the risk of reducing the notion of infrastructuring to mere technological aspects. (Karasti, 2014)

Sociotechnical systems (STS) have increasingly been looked to in development to provide the linkages and connectivity for such economic inclusion.  At which stage of the product development process are the questions asked about the way these systems economically include or exclude the informal actors who are more than just the users of such tools and may depend on them for their livelihoods ?


Karasti, H. (2014, October). Infrastructuring in participatory design. In Proceedings of the 13th Participatory Design Conference: Research Papers-Volume 1 (pp. 141-150).

Posted in Design, Innovation Planning, Literature review, Mobile platform, Perspective, Prepaid Economy & Informal Sector, Sub Saharan Africa, Systems, Technology, Value | Tagged , , , | 1 Response

Is it still design that we’re doing or is it simply using the designer’s toolkit?

It was sometime in the Spring of 2002 that I was looking for a metaphorical space that would accommodate me – an engineer, an MBA, with graduate product design education and the sensibilities and eye of a designer.

I’d spent the year on a Heinz Foundation Fellowship after my MBA to train with Dr Chris Capelli, an MD/PhD, then the Director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Tech Transfer program. As a Katz Tech Fellow, I was his intern, and he never hesitated to teach me about the finer points of licensing agreement negotiations for patents, or how to evaluate the commercialization potential of a novel innovation from a university lab.

It was here that I’d begun experiencing dimly the cross currents when one is in a university engineering lab looking at a scientist’s prototype of an innovative ultrasound scanner, tasked with envisioning its entire future journey through product development into the market. All so that I could write up the evaluation and recommend that the University invest in its patent costs. My fellowship was due to end in a few months and I was looking for my next position.

Surely, there was a space where manufacturing and production engineering, product and industrial design, and strategies for new market development could come together for me?

It was then that I stumbled across an interview of Larry Keeley of Doblin talking about the intersection of human centered design and business, and the Institute of Design in Chicago. Back then, the disciplinary strand I was intrigued by was called Design Planning. Luis Arnal’s personal website had the only lucid explication of Design Planning I’d come across and it captured my imagination. It’s also the deeper, broader, richer version of what passes for design thinking these days – its a strategic approach for the fuzzy front end of corporate innovation and transformation that incorporates user research, usually exploratory, and a structured planning approach to address complexity.

This new field also seemed to promise that mythical space where engineering, design, and business overlap. I flew to Chicago thinking I’d just have to suck it up and see if I needed to invest in another Master’s degree right after completing my MBA, if I wanted to wholly nurture the sparks I’d experienced in UPitt’s Tech Transfer Office. The experience of visiting the Institute of Design in early 2002 is worth a blogpost in its own right so I’ll save the story for another day. The bottomline is that I ended up starting work in August 2002 as the Director, Graduate Admissions, head of the department of everything related to students from awareness creation through to graduation.

In the three years I was there, reporting each semester’s performance to a Board of Trustees that included Don Norman, Sam Farber, Larry Keeley, Sam Pitroda, Jim Hackett, as well as harassing faculty to rapidly facilitate my ability to communicate the programs and their benefits, as well as the school’s philosophy of design, not to mention taking their classes in the evening, I received an education that no paper diploma can fully describe or capture. I planned John Heskett’s three city book tour for Toothpicks and Logos as a recruiting event. I got to hang out with everyone, tbh. But this is nostalgic derails.

The point I want to make in this writing is to reflect on the discipline of design once its capacities expand beyond the traditional artefacts and commercial objectives that originally gave birth to industrial design, particularly in the post WW2 productivity boom era of the United States.

This blogpost is a setting of perspective, as I tried to trace how I came to push the boundaries of the applicability of design research methods for understanding household financial behaviour in rural low income locations in the ASEAN and South Asia from the perspective of informing the design of business models and payment plans for irregular incomes, first articulated as a letter of intent for a Small Grant competition in August 2008.

The global financial crisis of 2008 is referenced in the literature of design, particularly the subdisciplinary strands of participatory approaches and cocreation, as the turning point in the global North for the expansion of the capacities of design beyond commercial objectives to more complex, societal challenges (Vaughan, 2017; Anderson et al. 2014, among others). As an innovator in this space of conducting design driven research for non traditional design outcomes – mine, at that point in time, was a conceptual design of a payment plan for a shared asset or resource for a community – I find myself reflecting on this massive transformation of the discipline and study of design, drawing from both the literature I’m reading and my own recollections and lived experience.

More questions than answers

Is it still design if the outcomes push the boundaries that gave birth to the discipline? Koskinen (2016) attempts to answer this from the point of view of aesthetics, that which used to define the designer’s education and skills building at the start of their learning journey. In many programmes around the world, the portfolio or extensive tests are used to evaluate the applicants’ ‘eye’ – something I’ll have to write about another day – what happens to this legacy as design itself redesigns itself?

Read More »

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Magic, rhythm, and flow

Today has been set aside to read a book written by the Oxford professor of Archeology, Chris Gosden, called the History of Magic. My thoughts on the book will remain unwritten until I am able to do justice to a book review. In the meantime, I want to capture, in words, the inherent magic I am feeling, still under the surface. The words which will give song to this sensing, are not yet formed. But the rhythm of the keyboard offers me hints of future music, now beginning to be discerned, faintly.

In turbulent times, attempting to live nimbly and flexibly, responsive to air currents and trends, like an untethered hot air balloon, could inadvertently become more destabilizing than empowering. The rapidity of shifts in direction, due to the increased volatility of changes – rate of change, direction of change, even factors of change – meant that one could not conceive of oneself as “dancing in between” without being blown off course, to mix my metaphors with impunity.

One cannot even maintain dynamic equilibrium – the effort and resources required far outweigh any benefits –  in the swirling ever changing flows of a storm. One will never arrive at a stable state of feeling grounded or centered. Instead, the goal should be to continue maintenance of stability of orientation – a sense of direction that does not change hither and yon in response to the fluctuations in flows and currents.

Antony Gormley’s sculpture

Orientation, then, becomes the key to systems stability, rather than equilibrium. Volatility of conditions imply moving in and out of balance, in an effort to navigate through the turbulence. Focusing on equilibrium is a distraction. Were we able to arrive at our destination? I wonder then, if the concept of being grounded in such conditions then implies standing steadily in turbulent waters, able to walk through them, or whether stability is a point to point goal in the direction of movement akin to stepping stones in a raging river?

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Facilitating innovation by introducing the means to express oneself creatively

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Understanding Delegation

Less than 10 days ago, I was faced with an unusual problem, one of those which they say are good problems to have.  I found I’d reached the point in my process of development where I had to choose between the perspective held over from a past life along with the skills honed therein, where I was an acknowledged expert comfortable with my competence, and the novice’s need for practice and fluency in the skills and capacities for my current role in life. I chose the future.

After taking the conscious decision to focus on improving my skills and fluency in writing in the academic style, I’ve begun preparations for writing a contribution for an important research conference based on the empirical data gathered during the remote resilience project completed last year. There are easy ones that one can cherry pick and write a few thousand words without pause, more or less. Then, there are the more challenging themes, that ask you to work for them, both with the data as well as with the literature. In this process, begun earlier in the spring of this year, I have discovered a few things about the way I approach academic writing.

When a theme feels challenging, I do the literature review and save the relevant articles in a folder but put it aside “for the future, when I’m feeling more competent to handle it”. Then, just over a month ago, I was forced to dive into the folder and begin work on the topic I’d deemed the most challenging assignment. I wrote, and rewrote. I was able to get an early review and feedback from a scholar. I rewrote it again from scratch. And now, I’ve sent it to my professor to look at and expect another round of rewriting before submitting it for publication – who knows what reviewer 2 will ask for?

What I discovered during this process was that I have come to really enjoy the writing although the learning curve was steep and there were days when I felt I’d never get the hang of making the argumentation. There are drafts saved on this blog – the format is familiar and comfortable for thinking out loud – that I’ll never publish because they contain chunks of my article. I’m nowhere near an expert yet but I am definitely developing a feeling of competence that I did not have before, and in the process, I’ve learnt not to be afraid of sounding like an idiot.

In a way, it is no different from the synthesis of vast amounts of data from a variety of sources that I used to sit with and distill into crystallized form, after what would always feel like a painful process of sensemaking, no matter how many times I did it, and how often I returned to the same themes in my professional projects.

I am discovering that I must not let go completely of the lessons from the old way of doing and making, but figure out how to transfer subjective aspects of my sense of competency and expertise from the past to the future, to provide a bridge for accelerating through the process of experiencing the inadequacies and insecurities of an unpracticed novice. There is no benefit in completely devolving the legacy of one’s own experiences even when disrupting oneself in the present moment. The past can inform the future.

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Reflecting on the unseen changes that have been taking place over the past month, the best way I can explain it, even to myself, is to use the analogy of rocks on a river bed (or pebbles in a stream, if you prefer).

There’s been a re-alignment that has taken place at a much deeper level than the surface of my thoughts. Its as though the rocks and stones on the stream bed have been repositioned and realigned for optimizing the flow of water at the deepest level. That is, the difference made to the flow is not necessary on a surface level but underneath, in the foundation layers.

The water flows now more smoothly and churns up less mud. Less garbage is trapped, creating blockages or stagnant pools and eddies. If I were a silted harbour or a river mouth, I’d feel dredged.

Unlike the natural beauty of sound and sight created by rocks and stones in the path of rushing water, within ourselves such obstacles are a source of discordance. Re-alignment unlocks trapped energies and capacities long gone unnoticed. So much more begins to flow. Simply changing things on the surface won’t do, its the bed that needed the work.

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I decided to indulge myself in pondering these thoughts a little longer, in writing. Tonight’s music on the keyboard has a subtle rhythm that is pleasing. Taking the thoughts of the previous post a little further, it feels like I’ve let go of something that once had value but today I cannot even answer whether it still does. After all, it is what has been silent for so many years – the old music – what I was looking for when I began writing again in order to find my word song. Its like a lingering remnant of an old and never questioned assumption, a part of the me that I was a couple of continents ago.

What will come has no guarantee that it will be as pleasurable or as good as what was but at least it has still the creative capacity to be made. What was is not possible to be made again or remade, I think, because the circumstances that gave rise to it were entirely different. What in between is obvious, the years of silence on the blog. So I make a leap towards the new, with the tottering footsteps of an infant who has just let go of the sofa in order to walk alone.

As I look at the first paragraph, it strikes me that the last time I saw such writing in a post was back in 2006 on this blog. This is a good thing. Its rough. Its unpolished. Its my humanity, my errors, my personality, my teh … stripped of all else, this is the only remaining means to communicate yourself in plain text. Us olds who sat on DOS 1.0 in 1982 waited more than a decade for multimedia digital representation of ourselves, and even that was only the beginning.

I think I will fill the silence for a while with such musings as a means to mark the phase shift – worm hole jump. When I step away from the table I am filled with a sense of peace – gently lapping waves rather than turbulent tsunamis. Whatever it is I am doing right now, its the right thing to do.

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